How To Lose Friends & Alienate People - Robert Weide interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ROBERT Weide, co-creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm and director of How To Lose Friends And Alienate People talks about stepping into the limelight with movies and working (and befriending) Simon Pegg.
He also talks about the public’s unhealthy fascination and obsession with celebrity and dispels a few myths about Toby Young and his involvement in the film (which is based upon his real-life memoirs).
Q. How are you enjoying the limelight offered by having made your first feature film?
Bob Weide: This is my first feature as a director and it literally is a dream come true. For those of us who talk about wanting to make films as kids, this is the reality of what we’re talking about – directing narrative features. I’ve done documentaries and TV for six years but this was my first feature as director, so there were moments when I’d look around and was excited… but, of course, it was also very challenging on a day-to-day basis. And, of course, now that it’s coming out people want to talk mostly to the actors. It’s kind of the Simon Pegg show. I used to think it was the writers who really got screwed, because I went through that 10 years ago when I wrote a screenplay for a friend to direct and went through a lot of the interviews back then. When it came to the on-camera TV stuff, I’d be standing next to the director, my friend, and he’d be asked a question that I should have been answering. So, this time, I’ve been careful to let people know that I’m available for interviews [laughs]! To let people know that Bob Weide directed this movie.
Q. You mentioned some of the pressures, but did that extend to coping with such a big cast, and so many well-known names [from Jeff Bridges to Danny Huston, through to Gillian Anderson and Kirsten Dunst]?
Bob Weide: Well, first off all, I had an extremely well behaved cast! I wouldn’t call this an ensemble exactly, even though there were so many strong names, but I think people take their behavioural tips from everyone else. So, if the director is calm and the lead actors are calm, no one wants to be the sore thumb. And I’ve remained friendly with everyone. I saw Danny Huston the other night, in fact, and Simon Pegg and I have become best mates.
In fact, whenever my wife hears me giggling in the office, she asks: “Is that you on with your little British friend again?” We i-chat and because of the time difference between America and England, I usually switch on my computer in the morning and get a message saying: “Good morning captain.” Also, Jeff Bridges and I have been friendly for about 12 years. So, they were all terrific people and as far as the actors were concerned on this shoot, they were the least of my problems… in fact, they were not a problem at all.
Q. Were you aware of Simon Pegg and his work before shooting?
Bob Weide: When the script first came to me and the question came up of who would play the part, Simon’s name was already being bandied about. I wasn’t familiar with his work, so I did my homework and watched everything available. Hot Fuzz wasn’t out yet, but I saw Shaun Of The Dead and after five or 10 minutes of it, I thought this is the guy. I also saw Big Train and Spaced, and even got sent DVDs of Hippies. So, I really did my homework and I understood this was the right guy to play this difficult role. And by time I met him I was a Simon Pegg fan. And what was nice is that he’s a real Curb Your Enthusiasm fan. So, we really got to geek out on each other.
Q. And he genuinely is a nice guy, isn’t he?
Bob Weide: He really is just a normal bloke. He is absolutely what you would hope Simon Pegg would be when you meet him. He hasn’t let any of his fame go to his head. He still dresses in T-shirts and shorts, he has his wife, whom he loves, and he’s entirely devoted to his dog. And he’s still a geek! He’s a geek made good. He’s a guy who grew up loving movies and loving movie stars and now he’s just loving being a part of that world. He’s not become jaded in any way.
Q. Which is in complete opposite to his character in the film, who starts off loving and aspiring to the celebrity lifestyle and ends up being corrupted by it…
Bob Weide: It’s always about keeping your head. I’ve always said you can’t buy into that stuff and take it seriously… the minute the lifestyle and the celebrity mentality takes over, you’re already dead. His character has that awakening – he has that opportunity to join that world and he realises it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, one of the few times I had to work something out on the night, because most of the script was pretty well thought out, came on the night we shot the scene at the awards show, where Simon’s character gets into the fight.
I got the idea at the last minute to have Simon’s character run out of the building and look for an escape route, and to have the group of fans lift the rope and kind of say: “Come back on this side, where you belong.” It’s funny, but whenever my wife and I attend a premiere or an awards show, we always come out in front of the fans and geeks – and I don’t use that word derogatively – I look at them and say: “There but for the grace of god…. One wrong movie and I could have been on that side of the rope.” And I think Simon thinks the same way too.
Q. Has it been a conscious decision for you to steer clear of the darker side of celebrity? You’ve never felt like you could become corrupted by it personally?
Bob Weide: For me, it was never a choice not to play the game because I was never attracted to it in the first place. I have plenty of friends who get stalked by the paparazzi, but it’s not anything you’d aspire to. Fame is like Frankenstein’s monster – once you’ve created it, it can get out of control. I’ve seen people think: “Oh my God, I’ll never have any privacy ever again!” There are different levels of fame. There are the polite fans who quietly and respectfully approach you and ask for an autograph – and that’s acceptable. But the next level… when you think you’re having a moment of privacy and there’s someone with a long lens catching you when you’re about to eat, or sunbathe, or worse… it’s just so intrusive and I think it’s part of the sickness of our culture.
When I came to England I was quite surprised to see that you people have it too. But why people are so interested in other people’s private lives is beyond me. It’s like group hypnosis, or something – a giant distraction. When I was in London, I used to see the free newspapers that are handed out on the street, filled with celebrity photos and gossip, and I’d think: “My god, why don’t you pick up a proper paper and read some real news?” I was in England for a solid year, and the entire time I never once turned on the TV other than to play DVDs. It was just so cleansing for my system. I avoided all trash newspapers and magazines. But what was interesting to me was that when I came back to New York to shoot those scenes, I came into JFK Airport and was greeted with these giant TV monitors everywhere and the first story I heard was: “What is Jeremy Piven going to wear to the Golden Globes?” Is this the information people need to know? I immediately thought: “Oh my God, I’m back home.”
It leads to another problem, though. The reason why people like [President] Bush and McCain get in is because people have stopped thinking. They’re worried about Britney Spears’ shaving her head, but they’re not paying attention. It’s the systematic dumbing down of our country. On the one hand, it’s unimportant but it’s more insidious than that. And while this film is far from a lecture about that, those themes do underpin it. Another thing that gets me is our tendency to build celebrities up, only to beat them down. Why build them up in the first place? What is this fascination where we make turn them into gods, so that we can assassinate them?
Q. How involved was Toby Young? And how did you find working with him? Did you have to ban him from the set?
Bob Weide: Toby sort of gets off on creating the mythology of being a hapless loser. These elaborate fictions about him being banned from the set are total rubbish. Every time a new draft of the script was ready, he read it and gave notes. The thing about Toby is that for every 20 notes that were really rubbish, there might be one that was good… an occasional diamond in the rough. But Toby thankfully understood that the movie wasn’t the book, so he didn’t get territorial. He’d never say: “I would never do that.” Or: “I would never say that!” I’d say that the script is 85% different from the book. So much of the story [in the film] is fabricated in the script and he understood that. But he wasn’t banned from the set. He did misbehave so much when there that we did have to say that future visits would be by invitation only – and then he was closely monitored. In Toby’s case, he would try to chum up to the stars but wouldn’t realise they were working. So, he had to be kept at arm’s distance. But he was flown out to New York and allowed to become an extra in one scene, and he attended all the preview screenings and gave notes about the edits.
One of the fictions he created was that I’d hired an armed guard to keep him out of the editing room! But Toby embellishes stuff so much that it actually makes me wonder how much of the book is true. He’s written so many blogs about the film and what I’ve done that it’s like having a fictional character who happens to share my name. I actually had to tell him to stop doing it. So, we came to an agreement where he started to show me things, and I said you can keep writing them so long as you don’t expect me to go along with it. I think I’m within my rights to spill the beans.
Q. At one point in the film, Simon’s character asks what’s the best movie of all-time? Can you name yours?
Bob Weide: Look at you! I guess I should have been prepared for that one [laughs]. There’s always Citizen Kane to fall back on, I guess. But seriously, I think I have several favourites, so I’ll give you my top five. The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, because I saw it in High School and it changed my life. It opened up the door to great classic film comedy in general. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall really sprung my head around and I grew up on his films. They became the sort of films I’ve aspired to make if given the opportunity. I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. And The Graduate, I suppose. Then you start to get into the top 20… but you don’t need to hear about those [laughs].
Q. Can we talk about Megan Fox, who smoulders in the film…
Bob Weide: Actually, the ony place where I got everyone to leave me alone and cast an unknown in the film was for that role. When she came into the room and did the audition I just said: “The search is over.” She ticked all the boxes. I hadn’t looked at her resume, and I wouldn’t even have known what Transformers was. And I really thought I’d get the credit for discovering this young girl. But then Transformers came out and ruined everything. She was the No.1 star on IMDB for ages. And I thought I’d found her!
There are actually two things I’d like to see this film do. Firstly, I’d like to see it break Simon Pegg onto the next level in the States, in the same way that Four Weddings And A Funeral did for Hugh Grant, or 10 did for Dudley Moore. I’d like to see Simon become a household name in the States. The other thing is to answer the question: “Can Megan Fox act?” She’s terrific in Transformers but you’re looking at the robots and she’s acting against a lot of green screen. So, I hope this film will put that question to rest. I truly believe that if she chooses her projects wisely, she’ll be very well respected in the same way that Michelle Pfeiffer was when she made the step up from just playing the beauty to more serious roles. Her comic instincts are really spot on. With her part, a lot of the actresses that auditioned didn’t know how much to play as comedy. But she just knew where the funny was without telegraphing it. It was totally instinctual with her.
Q. How about for yourself? Do you want to continue making feature films? And has this opened any doors?
Bob Weide: I want to continue doing feature films, for sure. I left Curb Your Enthusiasm to do this movie. That was a big accident anyway… it was really just a one hour special and then HBO asked if we wanted to turn it into a series. I thought we’d do one season but they kept renewing. I’ve loved doing the series, but after six years I was ready to move on and my hope is to continue doing feature films. It’s funny but I’m probably the least ambitious person in this town in many ways. I take my time. My wife says it’s because I was a 10-month baby. The thing in this town is, you always seem to have to have the next thing lined up. But right now, I’m content to take some time off and read. I have a hammock in the back yard and, to me, spending time between my dog, a book and my music seems like a great day. And it’s always about the material with me. I have a couple of ideas I might like to develop, so when I feel like it I’ll see if I can get those going. But as for whether it’s opened doors, I guess we’ll find out once the film opens [laughs]. But if it’s six months before I get out of the hammock, that’s OK!